Politics, Religion and Inviting Disaster

Scott McLemee discusses Matthew Rose’s A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right with the author.

April 1, 2022

The overview of Matthew Rose’s A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right (Yale University Press) in this recent column stopped well short of addressing the religious perspective the author brought to the material under analysis. I characterized Rose’s worldview as Christian humanist without much confidence that the brand name would be instantly recognizable. Indeed, to anyone shaped by the culture-war arguments of recent decades, “Christian humanism” will sound like a contradiction in terms. It might be the one point on which Jerry Falwell and Christopher Hitchens would have agreed.

The thinkers discussed in A World After Liberalism—Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola, Francis Parker Yockey, Alain de Benoist and Samuel Francis, a group whose work spans the decades between the First World War through the start of this century—tend to think of Christianity as the root of egalitarianism, liberalism, democracy and related blights undermining the natural hierarchy that should prevail in a well-ordered world. They are more culturally sophisticated than any given pocket of misanthropic xenophobes or men’s-rights movementarians on social media, to be sure; otherwise, the world views overlap quite a bit. That similarity is not necessarily grounds for dismissing these “philosophers of the radical right,” but rather an indication that their doctrines have a constituency.

I finished my column on Rose’s book feeling not quite up to unpacking his Christian-humanist perspective but also wanting to ask him a few things. Fortunately, he was agreeable to the idea of an email interview. A transcript of our exchange follows.

Q: Of the five authors you discuss, only Oswald Spengler is a name familiar outside a pretty small milieu. What led you to this particular rabbit hole?

A: The authors I cover started to be mentioned by journalists in Europe and the United States in early 2016, during their coverage of the refugee crisis and the Trump campaign. It took only a little bit of reading for me to discover that there was an intellectual tradition on the far right that was different from what I had assumed—deeper, more modern, more philosophical, more reflective about contemporary thought and life, and more suspicious about the place of Christianity in Western culture. I didn’t share any of their ideas, but I had to admit that this intellectual tradition sometimes posed serious questions. In March 2018, I published an essay on intellectual foundations of the alt-right in the magazine First Things, and the response to it was really overwhelming.

Q: Was there any model in mind in writing the sort of political/intellectual profiles that make up your book?

A: One of the hardest parts about writing this book was that there’s so little scholarship on most of these figures. There are a few people out there doing great work, and I pay tribute to them, but I didn’t have any obvious models for the book itself. I cite my old teacher Mark Lilla, and I would recommend his style as a model for how to write intellectual history for a wide audience. I should also mention Isaiah Berlin, whose books are really galleries of individual intellectual portraits. For me, the best kind of writing helps the reader to see the unity or tension between a subject’s thought and life.

Q: You interrogate these men’s ideas from a distinct stance that I characterized in the review as Christian humanism. That was, admittedly, guesswork, based on what seemed like echoes of Charles Taylor’s critique of secularity and Alasdair MacIntyre’s perspective on modern ethics. Here’s your chance to set the record straight, or to clarify where you’re coming from, in any case.

A: Good guess. I am Roman Catholic, and Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre have certainly influenced how I understand modern moral thought. But since my book is about authors that aren’t well-known, let me mention a philosopher who’s influenced me, but whose name might not be familiar to many: Heinrich Rommen. Rommen was a star student of Carl Schmitt’s but was later imprisoned by the Nazis for his involvement in underground Catholic publishing. Rommen went on to write a number of important books about Christian democracy, which deserve to be better known.

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My approach to the radical right is similar to the approach that Rommen took to his former teacher. [Schmitt’s work in political theory has been influential despite his membership in the Nazi party between 1933 and 1936. —SM] I see it as inspired by a religious and moral critique of modern life, especially modern notions of equality and justice, which the radical right thinks are corruptive of the highest human aspirations, And here I partly agree: liberalism is unsatisfying. Our need to be loyal to a community or people to the exclusion of others, our need to inherit and transmit a cultural identity, our need to admire human greatness, our need to experience spiritual transcendence—these are needs of the human soul that liberalism can’t satisfy. But they are real needs, and a culture that ignores or impugns them is inviting disaster.

Q: A recent Pew survey found that most regularly churchgoing white Americans (including those identifying as Catholic) voted for Trump in 2020. The former president has tapped into many of the same concerns as the strain of radical-right, anti-Christian/neo-pagan thought you analyze. This seems contradictory on some level. Any thoughts?

A: My book is about an ignored chapter in 20th-century intellectual history. It is explicitly not a book about “what happened in 2016” or “a guide to the new right in 2022.” Many books about the far right essentially argue that it represents a powerful political demographic but also that it’s intellectually backwards. I sometimes joke that my view is the opposite: I think it’s a small movement but one that has some sophisticated thinkers.

Q: Fair enough! Do you have other work in progress?

A: I do. Right now I’m going through Samuel Huntington’s archives at Harvard. Did you know he was writing about religion at the end of his life?

Q: Other than about a “clash of civilizations” with Islam?

A: Yes, near the end of his career, Huntington became especially interested in the relationship between religion and national identity. I’m still working through a manuscript that he never finished (or published), and I’m fascinated to see that he was thinking about theology. One obituary of Huntington reports that he said he wished to be remembered for “his patriotism and his faith.”

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Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee is the Intellectual Affairs columnist for Inside Higher Ed. In 2008, he began a three-year term on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. From 1995 until 2001, he was contributing editor for Lingua Franca. Between 2001 and 2005, he covered scholarship in the humanities as senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. In 2005, he helped start the online news journal Inside Higher Ed, where he serves as Essayist at Large, writing a weekly column called Intellectual Affairs. His reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Nation, Newsday, Bookforum, The Common Review, and numerous other publications. In 2004, he received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. He has given papers or been an invited speaker at meetings of the American Political Science Association, the Cultural Studies Association, the Modern Language Association, and the Organization of American Historians.

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